Setting: Brentwood, California. Early 1980s.
Back in 1981, my mom, brother, and I loaded ourselves into our little VW bug Gussie and drove from Virginia to California. My dad was still working on the USS Nimitz, so he would be joining us two months later, once his deployment ended, and we would begin a new life in central-northern California.
Until Dad came home, Mother, Wally and I would stay with Gramma and Grampa Portwood in their little house in the country at 126 Balfour Road. This was a great comfort to us. In our crazy-quilt, military youth of traveling wherever Dad was stationed in the world, we always looked forward to our time at Gramma-and-Grampa’s house. It had always been there, no matter where we moved, and as far as we knew, it always would be. 126 Balfour Road was Home Base for us.
So we arrived and settled in to the tiny house just before Halloween. Gramma and Grampa generously made room for us, sleeping on futons in the livingroom, allowing Mother and me to take the front bedroom and Wally to take the back bedroom. It was cramped, but this was the house that Mother grew up in. It smelled like home, a mix of coffee and bacon and fresh country air, tinged with the scent of hay.
Wally and I enrolled in the local schools for the time being, and life fell into the familiar pattern of childhood, with school and homework and chores and errands to run. Now and again I would accompany Gramma and Grampa in their pickup (with camper shell) on visits to my great aunts and great uncles, who all lived nearby. Whenever we would visit Great Aunt Beulah (“Blondie”, we called her) and Great Uncle Lawrence, we would drive west on Balfour Road until we reached the end, then turning left onto Deer Valley Road at the “T” in the road.
Now right there at that “T”, looking straight ahead was all grazing pasture and rolling hills, dotted here and there in the distance with oak trees. “Hay Country” is what Grampa had always called it. Back then, there was fencing on that property, and right at the “T” there was a rusty metal farm gate.
The first time they took me with them, Grampa pulled up to the stop sign, and Gramma exclaimed in her Okie accent, “Now look at that deal there, Cyndi!” She pointed to the farm gate. Attached to it was a sign with big, plain, hand-printed lettering. I read aloud:
Here lies Bill Tate.
He is the one who hit the gate.
As Grampa turned onto Deer Valley Road, I asked Gramma, “Who is Bill Tate?”
She giggled and responded, “And why did he hit that gate, anyway?”
It was generally accepted, from that point, that we would probably never know the answers.
Dad returned from his deployment at Christmas, and within weeks, my parents bought a house an hour away from Home Base. Mom, Wally and I uprooted again and settled into a new house and new school.
But the sign still lurked in my memory.
The mystery of Bill Tate became a running joke with Gramma, Grampa, and me. Through the years, it worked its way into the lore of Brentwood and environs, at least as far as the Portwood family was concerned.
Whenever I would visit Gramma and Grampa — often — Gramma and I went for many drives, and there were at least a couple of occasions when we would drive to the end of Balfour Road, just to see the sign again and wonder aloud, who was this Bill Tate, and why did he hit the gate.
As is the cycle of the earth and of nature and life, with time comes change. We moved again and again. And again. Gramma passed away in late 1993 from pancreatic cancer, and Grampa followed her five years later. Sometime in the 1990s, the sign for Bill Tate disappeared. Eventually, even the gate disappeared.
All these years later, I am married and live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband and three girls. Every now and again, the rhyme pops into my head. Here lies Bill Tate. He is the one who hit the gate. And I discover that I’ve been pondering again on the back story. Although Gramma and I laughed over the sign, it occurred to me that perhaps it’s not funny, maybe Bill Tate died there at that spot. Not funny at all!
It only recently occurred to me to start asking around. Although my grandparents are long gone, I started by asking my cousin Cheryl (hi, HC!), who lived for years in the Antioch/Brentwood area of central California.
Cousin Cheryl didn’t know the answer. But her husband Cleon had also lived in Antioch, so she put the question to him.
Fortune smiles. Or perhaps it’s my grandparents smiling from heaven and pointing them in the right direction. Cleon had gone to high school in Antioch with a boy named Truman, who knew a Bill Tate back then. Could it be the same Bill Tate?
Yes, it could!
According to Truman, “Bill and Dave Wilson were wasted and stole a car. He ain’t sure what year but was in high school. Anyways, he took out about 40 feet of fence and a gate. Word got around that it was him (but he didn’t get busted for it), so someone put that sign up where the gate was. Somehow, a picture of it ended up in the Daily Ledger. Bill’s dad saw it and asked him if he knew anything about it. Of course, he said no!”
Wasted? Car theft? Forty feet of fence?
The mature, parental side of me should be horrified at the truth of the matter.
But my core nature finds this an absolutely, hysterically funny answer to the Mystery of Bill Tate.
Somewhere in heaven, Gramma Portwood is giggling, and there’s a twinkle in her eye.
I raise a toast to you, Bill Tate, wherever you are!
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